Book Review: Unlikely Allies

Unlikely Allies:  How A Merchant, A Playwright, And A Spy Saved The American Revolution, by Joel Richard Paul

It is difficult to know what to make of this book.  There are clearly some aspects of this book I was already familiar with given my fondness for reading about spycraft and its role in history [1] as well as my familiarity with the writings of Beaumarchais [2].  For the most part this familiarity made the story easier to appreciate in some aspects.  I had a rather unpleasant feeling, though, as I worked through this book, and it gave me a rather sour view of the author and his own morality as a popular historian.  This is not a book with a great deal of scholarly depth, and it is clearly aimed at a mass market.  That makes the author’s taste in salacious rumor and gossip, especially of a sexual nature, rather off-putting and offensive.  A book of this nature would be considered libelous, with justice, in most countries of the world, and seems to indicate a particular worldview that is directly antithetical to the cultivation of or appreciation of or even the recognition of virtue in political affairs.  It is one thing to bring the corruption of the Founding Fathers to light, but it is another thing entirely to confuse the darkest of innuendo with the ugly truths of our existence, and this book comes from a point of view that the worst things that can be said about people are the truths that need to be written about and the view that needs to be promoted, which is simply a place I am not willing to go.

In terms of its structure, this book takes a chronological look by character at the various people in what is written almost deliberately to be a decadent and even pornographic late ancien regime farce of the kind that Beaumarchais and the Chevalier d’Eon would have enjoyed, and that features a good deal of sexual identity confusion that meets our own age’s sordid taste for transvestism.  Among the heroes of this book, in fact almost the only one who comes off relatively well, is the longsuffering Silas Deane, who may have died of poison as a result of his penchant for truthtelling.  In a “based on a true story” popular history like this one it would make sense that the most honest of the characters involved would meet a bad fate as a result of that honesty.  I won’t spoil too much of the story for those who are unaware of the history, but this book is written from the point of view that America’s founding required a great deal of spycraft and subterfuge, much of it undertaken by larger than life people, and that this corruption should be celebrated in a Machiavellian sort of fashion that achieving good ends often requires bad or even reprehensible means.

Yet this particular point, which the author makes in a variety of ways, is undercut by his showing the British to be even better at spycraft than the novice Americans.  Yet the British, for all of their spycraft and awareness of what the Americans and French were doing, were still unable to overcome the rebellious colonists for all of the timidity of the French monarch and all of the divisions among the colonists themselves over political matters.  Ultimately, the various cloak and dagger espionage that the author writes about as being so vitally important appears to be a wash, with no decisive advantage to either side, and with only decency as a casualty.  Likewise, the author’s demonstration of the corruption in American society through land speculation only demonstrates that the New World was not as free of the Old World and its ways as it wished, and that the hunger for land and money has been a characteristic problem for the United States and its relations with neighbors.  Perhaps ironically, this book’s focus on the corruption involved in espionage and spycraft itself delegitimizes the contemporary mania for such efforts among America’s government, where the use of such techniques has brought our alliances with other nations and our own moral fitness to be an example for the world in question.  Sometimes the information gained through spying on others is simply not worth the moral cost of the acquisition of information to ourselves.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Military History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: Unlikely Allies

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Royalist Revolution | Edge Induced Cohesion

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